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College grads reach new high

Amy Scott Feb 24, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: We passed an educational milestone last year that went largely unnoticed, ’cause the Census data only came out this week. For the first time, more than 30 percent of adults in this country have at least a bachelor’s degree. Even though 30 percent doesn’t actually sound like a lot, it is a big step forward.

What’s less clear, though, is why advocates of higher education aren’t making a big deal of it. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: In 1947, when the Census started keeping track, just 5 percent of American adults had a college degree. Even 15 years ago, it was less then 25 percent.

Sara Goldrick-Rab teaches education policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She says a big push to get more people to go to college has paid off.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: There’s widespread awareness that without some form of post-secondary education, it’s very unlikely that you will be able to reach and/or stay in the middle class.

College-educated people also weathered the recession better, with much lower unemployment rates. But Goldrick-Rab says while more people are going to college, not enough of them are finishing. Just over half- of full-time students at four-year colleges graduate in six years.

Goldrick-Rab: We have focused all of our energies on getting people to go, and we haven’t figured out all the keys to success.

Especially for low-income and black and Latino students, who still lag behind their white and Asian-American peers. Stan Jones is president of the nonprofit Complete College America.

Stan Jones: We have a more representative freshman class in the country than we ever have, but the graduating class that stands on the stage doesn’t look at all like that freshman class.

Jones says rising college costs are part of it, but he also says colleges need to do a better job with remedial classes, and helping students get on a clear path to graduation.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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